Co-Author: Eric Meredith, Intercultural Competency Consultant, Feeding America
November is Native American Heritage month where we celebrate the many cultures, histories, and contributions of our country’s first Americans. One of the biggest contributions of Native Americans was providing 60% of all foods that are used in the world today which include beans, corn, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, chili peppers, vanilla, cacao, and many other products that were grown and cultivated by indigenous people here. To better appreciate Native American cultures, it is important to understand the indigenous foodways that existed prior to colonization and how the forming of this nation changed that. In this blog, we explore the history of Native American foodways and modern-day food sovereignty movements that aim to bring back traditional, indigenous foods to tribal communities.
History of Native American Foodways
Before colonization, Native Americans lived in healthy and thriving communities. Many tribes were agriculturists, while others were more migratory and prolific hunters/fishers and gatherers. All tribes foraged and preserved foods that would sustain them through the winter. Native Americans had a close connection with the earth and developed innovative ways of farming including raised beds and planting symbiotic crops together (corn, beans, and squash). Trade and commerce existed between indigenous communities that stretched from Alaska to South America.
When the United States was created, the U.S. Government forced tribes to relocate and outlawed them from hunting/fishing and in some reservations from growing their own foods. Buffalo herds and other game tribes relied on were destroyed and for tribes that didn’t have to relocate (mostly in the Southwest and West), the water they depended on to grow produce was rerouted to serve urban areas and white farmers/ranchers. This destroyed indigenous food systems that had existed for thousands of years. Tribes were given commodities and rations that consisted of dairy products, processed wheat, sugars, and meats which were never part of their original diet and contributed greatly to the highest rate of comorbidities (diabetes and heart disease) of any ethnic group in this country.
The Importance of Supporting Tribal Food Sovereignty
Today, the Native American Sovereignty movement advocates for a return to the Native foodways that existed prior to colonization. It supports the self-determination of tribes to access healthy and culturally meaningful foods that are produced by Native Americans. Tribal leaders, Elders, Native chefs, and healers have endorsed this movement, which promotes the return to healthy and thriving communities, as a way to preserve culture and traditions for future generations.
According to the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, “Food sovereignty goes well beyond ensuring that people have enough food to meet their physical needs. It asserts that people must reclaim their power in the food system by rebuilding the relationships between people and the land, and between food providers and those who eat.”
How Feeding America Supports Food Sovereignty
Feeding America has chosen to champion the Food Sovereignty movement by supporting its network of Food Banks that are engaging tribal partnerships. It provides grants and incentives for Food Banks to distribute culturally meaningful food, encourages sourcing food from indigenous farmers/ranchers and hiring staff to develop tribal partnerships and empowers Native communities to manage their food distributions. Feeding America has recently hired a Director of Native and Tribal Partnerships to help explore how the organization could better support Native American Food Sovereignty initiatives across the country.
Feeding America acknowledges that when the settlers arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, it was they who faced food insecurity. Native Americans gave them the gift of food security by teaching them how to grow produce, hunt, and forage. It is now our turn as a nation to bring food security back to tribes and support their initiatives that promote food sovereignty.
Native American Foodways. Encyclopedia of Alabama. (2020, November 18). Retrieved October 18, 2021, from http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2150.
Frank, L. E. (2020, November 30). History on a plate: How Native American diets shifted after European colonization. History.com. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from https://www.history.com/news/native-american-food-shifts.
Sicangu CDC. (2020, August 14). Food sovereignty: What it is, why it’s important, and a model. Sicangu CDC. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from https://sicangucdc.org/blog/f/food-sovereignty-what-it-is-why-it%E2%80%99s-important-and-a-model.
Mark Ford is of Chiricahua Apache and Tewa/Tiwa descent and was recently became the Director of Native and Tribal Partnerships at Feeding America. Prior to his current position, Mark worked for a Native-led and serving nonprofit as the Director of Community Partnership and Tribal Relations after serving as the Executive Director of Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs in Louisiana. Mark began his career as a Catholic priest including serving several years on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations in Arizona.
Eric Meredith is the Intercultural Competency Consultant for Feeding America. He currently serves as a Tribal Relations Specialist at a large government agency. Prior to his current role, Eric was a community nutrition education program manager for the University of Illinois and the federal government